February 23, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Carney on DOMA: ‘The administration had no choice’

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (Blade photo by Michael Key)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday emphasized the Obama administration “had no choice” in deciding to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court because of legal issues surrounding new litigation against the statute.

Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Carney noted the new DOMA lawsuits — Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management and Windsor v. United States — are unique because there’s no legal precedent for handling laws relating to sexual orientation in the Second Circuit, where the cases are pending.

“The administration had no choice,” Carney said. “It was under a court-imposed deadline to make this decision. This case in the Second Circuit was unique in that it lacked the precedent upon which to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the way that this administration defended it in previous cases, and therefore, required this decision on its constitutionality, and we had to act because of the deadline.”

The Obama administration had until March 11 to respond in court to the Pedersen case, filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and the Windsor case, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Both lawsuits were initiated in November.

Carney maintained the president’s position on DOMA “has been consistent” and said he’s “long opposed it as unnecessary and unfair.” Full repeal of DOMA was among Obama’s campaign promises in 2008.

Still, Carney maintained the U.S. government will remain a party to the DOMA cases to allow them to proceed and help facilitate efforts from Congress to defend the statute if lawmakers desire to do so.

“The administration will do everything it can to assist Congress if it so wishes to do that,” Carney said. “We recognize and respect that there are other points of view and other opinions about this.”

Carney also emphasized the Obama administration would continue enforcement of DOMA. Asked whether there could be any outcome at the district or appellate level that would prompt the president to discontinue enforcement of the statute, Carney replied, “You’re asking me to speculate. I would also note that the president is obligated to enforce the law.”

Asked by the Associated Press whether this decision is related to the president’s position on same-sex marriage, Carney said Obama’s position on marriage rights for gay couples is “distinct from the legal decision.” Obama has said he’s “wrestling” with the idea of same-sex marriage and suggested his position could evolve, but hasn’t yet endorsed marriage equality.

“I would refer you just to his fairly recent statements on that,” Carney said. “He’s grappling with the issue, but he, again, I want to make the distinction between his personal views, which he has discussed, and the legal issue, the legal decision that was made today.”

Carney also responded to a statement from the U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office criticizing the decision. In a statement to the Blade, Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel wrote, “While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, the President will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation.”

In response, Carney said the president is indeed focused on economic growth and job creation even as he makes the new decision on defending DOMA.

“We are also absolutely focused and committed on these key issues of economic growth and job creation, and we are now anticipating that this will move to the courts and the courts will decide,” Carney said. “And meanwhile, we will continue to focus on job creation and economic growth and ‘Winning the Future.’”

Carney deferred to the Justice Department in response to a question on whether the decision applies to all present and future cases or if the administration won’t defend DOMA in only the four currently pending cases — the new litigation in the Second Circuit and Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, which are pending before the First Circuit.

“My understanding is that because of the decision about the constitutionality of DOMA, and the position that the administration has taken, we will no longer defend DOMA going forward,” Carney said.

A partial transcript of Carney’s remarks on the DOMA announcement follows:

Associated Press: Could you walk us through on how the president’s position on the Defense of Marriage Act has evolved and how he came to the decision over at the Justice Department to no longer defend its constitutionality?

Jay Carney: Yes. The president’s position on the Defense of Marriage Act has been consistent. He has long opposed it as unnecessary and unfair.

Separate from that, or distinct from that, is the decision that was announced today, which was brought on by a court imposed deadline by the Second Circuit that required a decision by the administration about whether or not this case should require heightened scrutiny, heightened constitutional review, because this unlike the other cases in other circuits, there was no precedent, no foundation on which the administration could defend the Defense of Marriage Act in this case.

Therefore, it had to basically make a positive assertion about its constitutionality. The attorney general recommended that higher level of scrutiny be applied, and under that higher level of scrutiny, deemed or recommended it be viewed as unconstitutional.

The president reviewed that recommendation and concurred. Therefore, again because of the court-imposed deadline and the necessity that this decision be made, our announcement was made.

AP: But, in making that decision, is the president saying that he believes that marriage does not necessarily have to be between one man and one woman — that that cannot be constitutionally imposed?

Carney: The president’s personal view on same-sex marriage I think you all have heard him discuss as recently as the press conference at the end of last year. That is distinct from this legal decision and he — again, the attorney general and the president — were under a court-imposed deadline to make a decision in this case, and they did.

And the president — let me make a couple of points about it — the decision is that we will — the administration will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the Second Circuit. Furthermore, the president directed the attorney general not to defend — because of the decision that it is not constitutional — defend the Defense of Marriage Act in any other circuit in any other case.

Let me also make clear, however, that the administration that the United States government will still be a party to those cases in order to allow those cases to proceed, so that the courts can make a final determination about its constitutionality and also so that other interested parties are able to take up the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act if they so wish, in particular, Congress or members of Congress who want to proceed and defend the law in these cases. The administration will do everything it can to assist Congress if it so wishes to do that. We recognize and respect that there are other points of view and other opinions about this.

It is also important to note that the enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act continues. The president is constitutionally bound to enforce the laws and enforcement of the DOMA will continue.

AP: This raises questions given the president has said his own personal position is evolving. Can you tell us where his position on gay marriage stands at this point?

Carney: I would refer you just to his fairly recent statements on that. He’s grappling with the issue, but he, again, I want to make the distinction between his personal views, which he has discussed, and the legal issue, the legal decision that was made today.

Let me move on.

Washington Blade: Jay, I got a few questions for you on the DOMA decision. Just — what kind of reaction are you expecting from Congress as a result of this decision and what is the administration doing to prepare for that?

Carney: Tell me again, I’m sorry, what kind of reaction?

Blade: — are you expecting from Congress. Any sort of backlash from Congress — what are doing to prepare for that?

Carney: I don’t want to speculate about how members of Congress might react. We have, I believe, and if you haven’t seen these,  you should, the attorney general has both put out a statement and there’s a notification or a letter to Congress that explains the course of action that’s being taken, but beyond that I don’t — I wouldn’t want to speculate.

Blade: I got a statement from Speaker Boehner’s office on this issue. This is from their press office: “While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, the president will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation.” What’s your response to that?

Carney: Well, I would say simply as I said in the beginning. The administration had no choice. It was under a court-imposed deadline to make this decision. This case in the Second Circuit was unique in that it lacked the precedent upon which to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the way that this administration defended it in previous cases, and therefore, required this decision on its constitutionality, and we had to act because of the deadline.

We are also absolutely focused and committed on these key issues of economic growth and job creation, and we are now anticipating that this will move to the courts and the courts will decide. And meanwhile, we will continue to focus on job creation and economic growth and “Winning the Future.”

Blade: Just to be clear, just to be clear — will this decision — does it just apply to the four pending lawsuits on DOMA or does it apply to any and every lawsuit for DOMA in the future?

Carney: I would refer you — I’m not a lawyer — but I would refer you to the Justice Department. My understanding is that because of the decision about the constitutionality of DOMA, and the position that the administration has taken, we will no longer defend DOMA going forward. We will, however, continue to enforce it and we will continue to be participants in the cases to allow those cases to continue and be resolved, and so that Congress or members of Congress can pursue the defense if they so desire.

Blade: One last question. One last question. Is there any outcome at the district or appellate level that would persuade the Obama administration to volunteer discontinuing enforcement of DOMA throughout the nation?

Carney: You’re asking me to speculate. I would also note that the president is obligated to enforce the law.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

2 Comments
  • Considering that not so long ago President Obama’s marriage was illegal in the U.S. it really makes me wonder why he personally would continue to endorse the discrimination against Gays by denying them the Right to Marry. Doesn’t he feel that the Laws of this country should be enforced the same way towards ALL citizens and not just the ones Congress endorses at the moment? How can he, in all good conscience, allow himself or the Country he represents to discriminate against a significant segment of the population? If President Obama continues to practice such bigotry and homophobia himself, how can he ask the rest of Society to do something different?

  • I know the Republicans in Congress are going to want to defend DOMA in court, but really do they want to? Do they want to go against an 81 year old widow? Spend the resources of the government to defend something that won’t make any difference to the average American who needs a job? Really? Why would they do such a thing when it can so easily be thrown in their faces in the next election? Instead of working on getting middle class and poor families on their feet, they’d be spending their time and tax payer’s money on a lawsuit against a little old lady! NOT a good position to take. Better to let everyone in a LEGAL relationship marry if they want to, as they aren’t breaking any laws, and let the states collect the marriage revenue!

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